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March 20, 2018  |  Login
Eating Disorders
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Eating disorders are characterized by a distorted body image and an intense fear of being fat. This abnormal mental state leads to extreme and sometimes life-threatening behavior. A person with an eating disorder may binge on large quantities of food and then vomit or use laxatives so that the food exits the body undigested, or the person may refuse to eat all. Although eating disorders can manifest themselves in many ways, they always result in an unhealthful, obsessive relationship with food. The best-known and most frightening kinds of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Anorexia nervosa occurs most frequently in teenage girls and college-age women, and it's estimated that about 1 percent of all young women in this age group suffer from the disease. It is here that eating disorders take their most disturbing form: slow, deliberate starvation. Despite their obviously emaciated bodies, anorexics believe that they are overweight. They refuse food, or they eat just enough to keep their systems minimally functioning. Some may eat occasionally, just to please their families or friends, but they often purge themselves of the food afterward. It's not hard to see that anorexia can lead to grave health problems. Weight loss, weakness, and fatigue are obvious early signs, but as the disease progresses, it can also lead to weak vital signs, irregular menstruation, and cold or tingling extremities. If the dieting continues, the person may go into cardiac arrest.

Bulimia is a more common disorder that affects a slightly older population, usually women in their twenties. Bulimics also have a distorted body image, but instead of dieting down to skin and bones, they use a cycle of bingeing and purging to maintain a relatively normal weight. Bulimics may eat thousands of calories at one sitting and then induce vomiting to expel the food from the body so that they can't gain weight. They may also use laxatives to keep the body from digesting the food. Because many bulimics are quite successful at hiding their purging, the disease may go unnoticed for years. In fact, bulimia is often diagnosed only when a doctor or a loved one notices a pattern of medical conditions associated with bulimia. The stomach acid produced by frequent vomiting often causes tooth decay or a chronically sore throat. Self-induced vomiting produces another telltale sign: sores on the knuckles or the fingers. Not surprisingly, bulimics also tend to suffer from nutritional deficiencies, as well as digestive disorders like constipation or diarrhea In severe or long-term cases, the complications can be fatal. The stomach or the esophagus may rupture, or a potassium deficiency can lead to kidney failure or heart attack.

We do know that eating disorders are a recent and mostly Western phenomenon, rare before the latter half of the twentieth century and nonexistent in developing nations. Our culture's emphasis on dieting and thinness is one undeniable cause of the disorder; far too many girls-and an increasing number of boys-believe that they are unlovable and even unclean if they can't diet down to the current rail-thin standard. Even if these children don't intend to become anorexic or bulimic, it is highly likely that what starts out as "normal" dieting will disrupt the body's metabolism and chemistry and eventually lead to a serious disorder. Family dynamics also play a role: many sufferers come from families that place great pressure on their children to succeed. Although doctors used to believe that anorexia and bulimia were purely psychological in nature, it's now understood that chemical imbalances and the accompanying nutritional deficiencies may lead to eating disorders just as easily as they may to lead to depression

An eating disorder must always be taken seriously. more

Next: What are the Symptoms of an Eating Disorder

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